Tag Archives: racism

Don’t Know Much About History

For our various driving trips over the past few months I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. It’s a vast overview of American history from pre-Colonial days until 2001. I found it to be oddly captivating, especially as it helped to fill in gaps in my knowledge of history, including the War of 1812, Reconstruction, the Korean War and more.

Any overview of history is sure to have its biases and make choices of content and coverage that someone is sure to disagree with. But some of those choices were especially interesting. For example, the Battle of the Bulge in World War II received more coverage than the Apollo moon landing. Alan Greenspan and his control over the boom economy of the 1990s received about as much coverage as the Kennedy assassination. Uncovered spies in the last decades of the 20th century were given thorough treatment in a chapter on the failures of the FBI, while the World Trade Center bombing was only mentioned in passing during the account of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I imagine it’s hard to put history in perspective, especially recent history. But how we make those choices is certainly fascinating.

Looking back on the entire book, it’s bizarre how much space is given to war. Each and every war was given a thorough overview, including the reasons for the war and the important milestones of each war, such as major battles. It seems odd to give so much space to each individual battle. Surely wars themselves and the reasons for each war were important to cover, but I don’t get the emphasis on each minute rise and fall. Wars shape our society, without a doubt, but I would think other social factors would have more importance than the Battle of Midway.

The other feeling I was left with was the incredible failure of mankind. Again and again we’re confronted with disgusting realities, whether it’s the Constitution declaring black men to be three-fifths of a person, the savage treatment of Native Americans justified by their supposed savageness or the national superiority that sees immigrants as lesser persons, despite the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants.

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was one such incident, a racially motivated powder keg that saw an entire black neighborhood burned to the ground and several hundred people killed. It was such an ugly affair that it was expunged from local records and never acknowledged until recently.

History is full of this kind of sadness.

But as I was driving across the prairies of Kansas hearing about the civil rights movement, I found moments of hope. In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case the Supreme Court finally overturned more than 50 years worth of racism that had been enshrined in U.S. court decisions. What’s perhaps most amazing about this is how Chief Justice Earl Warren convinced the other justices to issues a unanimous ruling, leaving no question as to the utter defeat of segregation. The back story is even more intriguing, that the court was actually re-hearing the case and that Warren was appointed chief justice before this final re-hearing. Ironically, President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of Warren the “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”

I was hearing this history while driving past exits for both the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. You don’t always think about it, but Kansas has been a flashpoint for racial progress going back to the Bleeding Kansas days when the territory was at the middle of a slave vs. free state debate.

In spite of all our failures, weakness and stupidity—both then and today, for surely we have our own failures we’ll one day be explaining to our children—there is always room for hope.

When Marian Anderson Sang

Marian Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Anderson performing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

I love that my wife is a kindergarten teacher. It means we have a vast collection of good children’s books—so many that I haven’t read a lot of them.

So today when Lexi pulled When Marian Sang off the shelf for her pre-naptime book, I was reading it for the first time. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells the story of black singer Marian Anderson and her struggles in the segregated, pre-civil rights America. I’d never heard of Marian Anderson before, but her tremendous voice was respected around the world.

In 1939 Howard University brought Marian to Washington, D.C., to perform. They tried to book Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), who ran the hall, refused to allow Marian to perform because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. over the incident.

Marian eventually performed on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to a mixed-race crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.

In 1943 the D.A.R. invited Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in support of the war effort. She agreed on the condition that the seating be mixed (as opposed to an all-white crowd or only allowing blacks to sit in the balcony). The D.A.R. agreed and it was the first time in the history of Constitution Hall that blacks and whites sat together.

I got choked up a few times reading the story and could barely keep it together. The injustice and cruelty of America’s history of racism is just stupid. I don’t have a better word for it.

At the point in the story when Marian isn’t allowed to apply to a music school—”We don’t take colored,” she’s told—there’s a picture of Marian’s mother comforting her. Lexi and I had this exchange:

“What’s wrong with her?” Lexi asked, pointing to the picture.

“She’s sad,” I said.

“Why is she sad?”

“They wouldn’t let her go to school because of the color of her skin.” My voice was already wavering, trying to hold it together.

“That’s not fair!” Like most kids, Lexi exclaims this over the most mundane things (no dessert, bed time, etc.), but she had real anger this time.

“No, it’s not fair,” I said, shaking my head and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.

Knowing her experience makes the words of the spirituals she sang all the more poignant: “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow…”

Overcoming Hate with Love

I have a hard time appreciating just how incredible the American Civil Rights movement was. I just watched this video, how to defeat the KKK, and then did minimal research on Wade Watts and read this story about his interactions with former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary. Watts was one of many heroes in this movement, a man I’d never heard of before. I love this story:

When Oklahoma State Sen. Gene Stipe and civil rights activist Wade Watts walked into a restaurant in the late 1950s, a waitress confronted them at the door and told Watts, an African American, that the restaurant did not serve Negroes.

With a smile, Watts replied, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.”

And that’s tame compared to Watts’ reactions to Clary as detailed in the video. That’s incredible love in the face of overwhelming and completely overt hatred.

Continue reading Overcoming Hate with Love

Race in the Obama Era

I came across two interesting stories last week involving race (apparently today is blog about stuff I found last week day).

The first is a Newsweek article about a black family that adopted a white girl. It’s an interesting story and sad that multi-racial adoption seems to only be accepted one way.

The second is this photograph of a young black boy and U.S. President Barack Obama. The boy asked to touch Obama’s hair to see if it really felt the same as his. It’s another reminder that children don’t see race the same way adults do.

The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.Last week I talked a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. being a radical. Today it seems appropriate to look at some of his radical words.

On love vs. hate:

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

On nonviolence:

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” (Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1964)

Continue reading The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. the Radical

Martin Luther King Jr.I’ve been reading The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House lately (can you guess why?) and have been fascinated by the perspective of history. Specifically Martin Luther King Jr.

Admittedly, my understanding of current history (say, the last 60 years) is weak at best. I blame my education when the textbooks crammed anything after World War II into a miniature chapter at the end of the book that we never covered. Of course that was a long time ago and any further lack of education is my own fault. I know the basics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I’m usually lacking context and an understanding of how events relate.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example. I never realized what a radical he was.

Continue reading Martin Luther King Jr. the Radical

Yes We Can: Hillary Clinton Made Me Cry

Let me start by saying I don’t like Hillary Clinton.

But I got teary eyed watching her tonight during the Democratic National Convention. There were two moments that got me: Her introduction video when she said, “See, you can be whatever you want to be,” and in her speech when she talked about women getting the right to vote and her mother being born before women could vote and her daughter being able to vote for a woman for president.

All my life women and minorities have had the right to vote and have had other equal rights and I’ve never thought much of it. But when you realize that only white men have ever been the face of this country’s highest office, it sends a clear message and you begin to wonder about those equal rights. It’s one thing to say a woman or a black man or a Latino woman or a Jewish man could be president, but it’s another thing to see it happen.

I got teary eyed because this election year a woman and a black man had a chance to be elected President of the United States, and for the first time I realized what that meant for my daughter and my soon-to-be-adopted black child. I can tell them, and reality will back me up, that they can be whatever they want to be.

You could say that fatherhood has made me soft, and you’d be right. Thanks to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for proving you can be whatever you want to be.

Historic Poverty Data and Race

Historic Poverty Data 1959-2006After I wrote this I was wondering about race and poverty. I made the comment that if you’re black you’re more likely to be poor and I wondered what data backed that up. So I found historical poverty tables from the U.S. census, ranging from 1959-2006. It’s pretty interesting stuff.

In 2006:

  • 12.3% of all people were below the poverty line.
  • 10.3% of whites were below the poverty line.
  • 24.2% of blacks were below the poverty line.

Continue reading Historic Poverty Data and Race

What’s Race Got to do with Test Scores?

A new batch of Minnesota test scores were released this week. Overall it sounds like good news with 75% passing the new test. But it gets interesting as the media starts talking about the various demographics (PDF). I was listening to NPR and they started talking about the various numbers, pointing out that 82% of white students passed, while every other ethnic group saw lower numbers (Black: 41%, Hispanic: 48%, Asian: 63%, American Indian: 55%).

What does race have to do with test scores? The gap between whites and other races is startling. My initial thought was that race has nothing to do with the results, that it’s more likely socio-economic factors. Meaning if you’re black and failed the test, you weren’t more likely to fail because you were black, but because blacks are more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged, i.e., live in poor areas and attend poor schools. It’s generational poverty. But as I’m looking into it, it seems the black-white test score gap exists regardless of socio-economic factors.

Which is kind of disturbing. What’s causing that gap? Is it institutional racism? Is it more overt racism? I don’t know. My quick Google search and 20 minutes of reading is hardly enough to even begin making me look stupid, never mind coming close to any answers.

Mississippi Town Holds First Integregated Prom

Segregation ended more than 50 years ago but a Mississippi town just held its first integrated prom. Charleston, Miss. has held separate, privately funded proms for black students and white students. Going back to 1997 actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in Charleston, has offered to pay for an integrated prom. This year school officials finally took him up on the offer.

The prom went off without incident and the school is planning to do it again next year. It’s a major step forward even though “some white parents wouldn’t let their kids go, and some insisted on holding a private prom for their kids.”

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never lived in the South and don’t really understand it, but—what?! This is kind of insane. I’m glad to see some forward progress, but taking until 2008 to hold your first interracial prom? Wow. And a bigger wow that some parents wouldn’t let their kids go.

For anyone who doesn’t think racism is still firmly entrenched in society, there you go. (And it’s worth pointing out that I’m not saying racism is only in the South. It’s just more obvious in the South. A black woman once said she’s rather live in the South where you know who hates you, as opposed to the North where people act nice to hide the fact that they hate you.) (link via jonforeman)